US charges five Chinese 'cyber spies' with hacking US firms
The United States launched a highly public offensive against the threat of Chinese industrial espionage, saying that it was charging five members of the People's Liberation Army with stealing secrets from American companies.
In a move that immediately raised US-China tensions, the US Justice Department sought maximum publicity for the charges over what it called "21st-Century burglary", abruptly ending the era of quiet diplomacy on the issue.
"This case should serve as a wake-up call to the seriousness of the ongoing cyber threat," said Eric Holder, the US attorney-general, announcing the charges. "These criminal charges represent a groundbreaking step forward in addressing that threat."
Experts said that while China would never give up its hackers to stand trial in the US, the move to file court charges marked a legal and diplomatic step-change in US attitudes, even paving the way for future targeted sanctions against companies linked to the PLA.
Beijing responded furiously, charging the US with producing "made-up facts", demanding Washington revoke the prosecution and announcing it would suspend participation in a joint US-China working group on cyber security.
"This move has seriously violated the basic norms of international relations and damaged the relationship and trust between China and the US," said a foreign ministry statement.
However, the US showed no signs of backing down, indicating that the decision to press charges was not isolated and would be repeated.
"This first indictment of Chinese cyber actors clears the way for additional charges to be made," said Robert Anderson, the executive assistant director of the FBI.
"This is the new normal. This is what you're going to see on a recurring basis."
The 56-page indictment points the finger explicitly at the PLA's Shanghai-based Unit 61398, which was named in a report last year as the hub of China's commercial espionage operations.
It accuses the unit of stealing technologies ranging from solar panels to nuclear power stations from five US companies and a steelworkers' union between 2006-2014 in order to benefit Chinese state-owned enterprises.
The charges mark the first time that the US has responded to Beijing's challenge to provide court-worthy evidence of cyber espionage – a practice that China officially denies it conducts.
In a further signal of intent to rile Beijing, the FBI released lurid "wanted" posters with photographs of the alleged hackers. (© Daily Telegraph, London)